Theobald’s Baobab Theatre

A Madagascan Baobab tree, which I suspect Theobald refers to when he says ‘Baricot’.

Almost a decade ago now, I spent two months of my summer holidays teaching English in Madagascar as a volunteer for The Dodwell Trust. I worked in the capital Antananarivo, in the cattle town of Tsiromandidy and in Vatomandry on the eastern seaboard. Wherever I went, I met so many extraordinary people and learnt so much. These days, I think of Madagascar often, but content myself with following the – often sad and always sparse – news that comes out of the country, and with hoping one day to go back. There is no place for Madagascar in my thesis.

Imagine my surprise, however, when I stumble across an article, written by Lewis Theobald in his journal The Censor for May 25th 1717, which caps its critique of English audience ignorance with a description of Madagascan theatre. Needless to say, this description bears a far greater resemblance to Gulliver’s Travels than to my own experience of life on one of the world’s largest islands. In all its oddity, though, it is worth copying out here for what it tells us about both eighteenth-century prejudice, and the period’s love of strange (and satirical) tales.

…without Regard either to Action or Emphasis, we take a particular Spleen to a Person, and hiss him, as oft as he appears, from no other Cause but our own idle Antipathy. It were well in this Case if we were obliged to the same Punishment, to shew the Injustice of our Prejudice, as I have read is frequent among a People in Madagascar.

The Jaribots are a Nation of Dwarfs, the Tallest of whom exceed not eighteen Inches: and the chief of their Recreation, is that kind of Drama which we understand by the Word Farce. They holllow the Trunks of their Baricot-Trees, which are of a stupendous Height and Circumference, to make their Theatres, where they pla their Comedies, which consist in merry Expressions and antick Gestures. ‘Tis remarkable that all the Spectators bring with them a Sort of Whistle made of a Reed, to hiss the Players when they perform not their Part well, or take a Liberty of Lewd Talk, or unseemly Postures. But no Man is permitted to hiss without Cause: If any do, the Audience force him to get upon the Stage, and if he can play the Part better than the Actor he hiss’d, he is receiv’d to be an Actor himself: But if he play it worse, they drive him with Shame out of the Theatre, and forbid him from that Time to make his Appearance there.